BUFFALO, N.Y. — West Virginia men's basketball coach Bob Huggins knew exactly what was going to happen.
With a little more than a minute left, West Virginia forward Cam Thoroughman, a notoriously bad free-throw shooter, was about to take his second shot at the line to extend the lead over Missouri by six. It’s a scenario that Huggins is so familiar with he has said he has a play for it. Missouri was unprepared.
“We’re used to Cam missing them,” Huggins said. “It may have been a surprise to them. It wasn’t to us.”
Instinctively, West Virginia guard Da’Sean Butler slipped behind Missouri’s box out, and rebounded the expected miss. The result was an easy layup that Missouri forward Keith Ramsey said changed the complexion of the game.
“That was big,” Ramsey said. “It probably would have given us more motivation, put more pressure on them. I mean things just didn’t go our way tonight.”
It was one of the few times No. 10 seed Missouri failed to chase a rebound against No. 2 seed West Virginia in a 68-59 loss Sunday in the second-round of the NCAA Tournament at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, N.Y. For most of the game, the Tigers pestered their taller opponents like mosquitoes. However, it couldn’t contain the Mountaineers' height.
“I mean it was real tough,” Missouri forward Laurence Bowers said. “Four of the starting five is the same height as me and Keith. We did the best we could, but they made a couple more plays than we did and that won the game.”
The problem began with two minutes left at the free-throw line. The Tigers failed to box out Mountaineers forward Devin Ebanks and it led to an easy layup for guard Joe Mazzulla. Missouri went from being down five to down seven, deflating its late charge.
“It wasn’t a missed assignment,” Bowers said. “They just wanted it more, that’s all.”
It went down hill from there. The Mountaineers began boxing out again, something it hadn’t done for most of the second half. They used their height and athleticism to block shots and prevented Missouri from making its comeback.
“Things started to go their way toward the end,” Ramsey said. “But you can’t really blame it on that, we should’ve just played better.”
For most of the game the Tigers seemed like the taller team. West Virginia has four starters 6-foot-7 or taller, but led by Bowers and Ramsey, Missouri often had the upper hand. To make up for the size disadvantage, Missouri made it a volleyball match. Each rebound was either tipped to a guard on the outside or knocked out of bounds. When the tactic didn’t work, Missouri made sure the Mountaineers had to fight for the ball and made a point of being physical with the forwards.
“We had to focus on hitting people and playing more physical than we normally do,” Matt Zimmerman an assistant coach for Missouri said. “But we were able to hang in the ball park on the boards.”
However, Zimmerman was cautious to say that Missouri's rebounding success was all thanks to the physical play.
“They didn’t seem to be blocking out as hard,” Zimmerman said. “So we were able to slip through there and get some offensive rebounds.
It helped keep Missouri close, and the Tigers used rebounding to score 19 points. It got so bad that Huggins became red in the face yelling at his players to rebound. When the game slowed down, Missouri's rebounds helped replace the points the Tigers usually generate from turnovers.
“Today we weren’t forcing turnovers,” Zimmerman said. “So we had to rebound to stay in the ball game, and we did that.”
However, in the end, Bowers said the Tigers didn’t do enough to win the game.
“There are certain games when it (rebounding) is so much bigger, and today was one of those games,” Bowers said. “And we came up short.”